Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant cells develop in any part of the pancreas. This may affect how the pancreas works, including its exocrine or endocrine functions. About 70% of pancreatic cancers are found in the head of the pancreas.

Pancreatic cancer can spread to nearby lymph nodes, blood vessels or nerves, and to the lining of the abdomen (peritoneum). Cancer cells may also travel through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, such as the liver.

This information is about the most common types of pancreatic cancer – adenocarcinomas and other exocrine tumours. Neuroendocrine tumours affecting the pancreas (pancreatic NETs) are covered in a separate section. 

Learn more about:

The pancreas

The pancreas is a long, flat gland about 13–15 cm long that lies between your stomach and spine. It is divided into three parts:

  • the large rounded end, called the head of the pancreas
  • the middle part, known as the body
  • the narrow end, called the tail.

A tube called the pancreatic duct connects the pancreas to the first part of the small bowel (duodenum). Another tube, called the common bile duct, joins with the pancreatic duct and connects the liver and gall bladder to the duodenum.

What the pancreas does

Exocrine function – The pancreas is part of the digestive system, which helps the body digest food and turn it into energy. Exocrine cells make pancreatic enzymes, which are digestive juices. The pancreatic duct carries these juices from the pancreas into the duodenum, where they help to break down food. Most of the pancreas is made up of exocrine tissue.

Endocrine function – The pancreas is also part of the endocrine system, a group of glands that makes the body’s hormones. Endocrine cells in the pancreas make hormones that control blood sugar levels, the amount of acid produced by the stomach, and how quickly food is absorbed. For example, the hormone insulin decreases the level of sugar in the blood, while the hormone glucagon increases it.

The pancreas in the body

the pancreas

What are the main types?

There are two main types of pancreatic cancer:

Exocrine tumours – These make up more than 95% of pancreatic cancers. The most common type, called an adenocarcinoma, starts in the cells lining the pancreatic duct. Less common types include adenosquamous carcinoma and undifferentiated carcinoma. The different types are named after the cells they start in. Learn more about treatment for exocrine tumours.

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (NETs) – About 5% of pancreatic cancers are pancreatic NETs. These start in the endocrine cells. Pancreatic NETs are categorised as either non-hormone producing (non-functioning) or hormone producing (functioning). Learn more about treatment for pancreatic NETs.

Who gets pancreatic cancer?

About 3300 Australians are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year. More than 80% are over the age of 60. It is estimated to be the eleventh most common cancer in males and eighth most common in females in Australia during 2019.

What causes pancreatic cancer?

Research has shown that people with certain risk factors are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Known risk factors include:

  • smoking (cigarette smokers are about twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer as non-smokers)
  • obesity
  • ageing
  • type 2 diabetes
  • pancreatitis (long-term inflammation of the pancreas)
  • certain types of cysts in the pancreatic duct known as intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms (IPMNs) – these should be assessed by an appropriate specialist
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • family history and inherited conditions
  • workplace exposure to some pesticides, dyes or chemicals.

Screening tests help detect cancer in people who do not have any symptoms. Although there are useful screening tests for certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer and bowel cancer, there is currently no screening test available for pancreatic cancer.

How important are genetic factors?

Most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer do not have a family history of the disease. About one in 10 people who develop pancreatic cancer have an inherited faulty gene that increases the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

You may have an inherited faulty gene if:

  • two or more of your close family members (such as a parent or sibling) have had pancreatic cancer
  • there is a family history of a genetic condition, such as Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, the familial breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2), familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome, Lynch syndrome and hereditary pancreatitis.

Some pancreatic NETs are caused by a rare inherited syndrome, such as multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1), neurofibromatosis (NF-1), Von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) disease or tuberous sclerosis. Genetic testing aims to detect faulty genes that may increase a person’s risk of developing some cancers. People with a strong family history of cancer can attend a family cancer clinic for genetic counselling and tests. For more information, talk to your doctor, local family cancer centre or Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Click on the icon below to download a PDF booklet on pancreatic cancer

Printed copies are available for free - Call 13 11 20 to order

Instructions for downloading and reading EPUB files

Apple devices

The iBooks application must be installed on your Apple device before you can read the EPUB.
Different ways to download an EPUB file to your Apple device:

  • email EPUB files to yourself and transfer the attachment to iBooks.
  • copy EPUB files into DropBox (or a similar service) and use the DropBox app to send them to iBooks.
  • open EPUB files directly from Mobile Safari and open them in iBooks, where they are saved automatically by downloading the EPUB from the website.

Need more help? Visit:


To download an EPUB file to your Kobo from a Windows computer:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • select “Open folder to view files” to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

To download an EPUB to your Kobo from a Mac:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • open your “Finder” application.
  • select “Kobo eReader” from the listed devices to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, probably in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

Turn on your Kobo and your EPUB will be located in “eBooks”, while a PDF will be located in “Documents”.
Need more information? Visit:

Sony Reader

To download an EPUB file on your Sony Reader™:

  • ensure you have already installed the Reader™ Library for PC/Mac software
  • select the eBook you want from our website and click the link to download it.
  • connect the Reader™ to your computer.
  • open the Reader™ Library software and click “Library” in the left-hand pane and select the eBook to view it.

Need more help? Visit:

Amazon Kindle 2nd Generation devices

EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
To transfer a PDF to your Kindle™ via USB cable from your computer or Mac:

  • download the PDF directly onto your computer.
  • connect the USB cable to your computer’s USB port, and the micro USB end of the cable to your Kindle™. Note: the Kindle™ won’t be available as a reading device while it is connected to your computer until it has been disconnected.
  • open the Kindle™ drive and several folders will appear inside. The “Documents” folder is where you will need to copy or drag the PDF to.
  • safely eject your Kindle™ from your computer and unplug the USB cable. Your content will appear on the Home Screen.

Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit
For more information on accessing a PDF on your Kindle™, visit, log in to your account and click on Personal Document Settings.
Need more help? Visit

Android and PC

You can also download and open eBooks on Android devices and PCs with appropriate apps or software installed. Suitable eReader apps for Android include Google Play Books, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Suitable software for PCs include Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions.

This information was last reviewed in February 2020
View who reviewed this content
View our editorial policy

Support services

Coping with cancer?
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum.

Looking for transport, accommodation or home help?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment.

Cancer information

What is cancer?
Learn how cancer starts and spreads

Pancreatic NETs
Learn about pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours (NETs), which are cancers that begin in the endocrine cells of the pancreas